Juan Pablo González:

Towards a Collective Poetics of Contemporary Chilean Composers


The absence of a tradition in Chilean art music is recognized by several Chilean composers and even proclaimed by some of them. What has not been clarified however, is of what tradition we are talking about. Art music has been performed, composed, and taught in Latin America since colonial times, establishing a tradition of art music practice in the region. However, the existence of a Chilean or Latin American compositional thought and a music stylistic school are more difficult to determine. The models of many Latin American composers are rather in Europe than in America. Cirilo Vila, professor of most Chilean composers from the 1970s to the 1990s, states (all quotations are my translations):

I can teach the Song through the tonadas by Pedro-Humberto Allende, and I do not need the songs by Schumann or from the common repertoire. Nevertheless, I cannot teach the Symphony with any of the symphonies by Chilean composers, however respectful he or she may be (Torres 1988: 71).

Despite this lack of a musical tradition, a scholarly tradition has been established among Chilean composers during the 20th century as a result of the process of teaching and learning composition. This tradition started at the beginning of this century at the National Conservatory, and continued in the University of Chile from 1929 to 1981. The changes that occurred after the Coup of 1973, produced the discarding of the degree in composition at the University of Chile in 1981. As a result, private teaching increased during the 1980s, and the Catholic University from Santiago and Valparaiso started courses in composition. [1]

Music in Chile is mainly taught at universities, both at graduate and conservatory level. The high attention given in Chile to academic musical training has been a positive factor in the development of art music in the country. A great demand for musical instruction has been satisfied by intense pedagogical activity. The growing number of Chilean orchestras and chamber groups during the 1980s, and the activity of young musicians in Chile and abroad, is a direct consequence of the development of institutional teaching in the country during the 20th century. The continuous teaching of composition in Chile, has not only produced a tradition in itself, but also in the musical approach of Chilean composers, and in their musical thinking, as expressed in their poetic discourse.

Within the teaching network of Chilean composers, some have contributed to the musical training of many of them, becoming a kind of musical nodes in this tradition. Enrique Soro (1884-1954), Pedro-Humberto Allende (1885-1959), and Domingo Santa-Cruz (1899-1987), are the first three nodes, starting the systematic teaching of composition in Chile. They taught composers from the 1920s to the 1950s. Alfonso Letelier (1912-1994), Jorge Urrutia-Blondel (1903-1981), and Gustavo Becerra (1925), learned from them and trained composers from the 1950s to the 1970s. Juan Lèmann (1928) and Cirilo Vila (1937) taught most composers from the late 1970s and 1980s. Alejandro Guarello (1951), Andrés Alcalde (1952), Eduardo Cáceres (1955), and Gabriel Mathey (1955), have been teaching composition since the late 1980s. [2]

Discussing their teaching and compositional practices, Chilean musicians have developed a discourse on philosophical, artistic, aesthetic, pedagogic, and socio-musical matters. This discourse is dispersed in interviews, lectures, and articles published in Chile and abroad. During the 1980´s, the world presence of Chilean musicians and the amount of writings produced by or about them was larger than in any of the previous decades. This paper will focus on articles and interviews of the nine Chilean composers who were more published and received more press cover during the 1980´s: Luis Advis, Andrés Alcalde, Gustavo Becerra, Eduardo Cáceres, Alejandro Guarello, Juan Orrego-Salas, Sergio Ortega, Carlos Riesco, and Cirilo Vila.

Chilean active composers during the 1980s can be grouped in seven decades from the 1920s, to the 1980s. [3] The classification of a composer within a decade has been determined by the time in which his or her music started to be publicly and regularly performed. Composers who have been living and working abroad for more than the half of their 1980s productive career have been listed under the heading "Outside Chile". The groups of composers are the following:

Decade Inside Chile Outside Chile
1920s: Domingo Santa Cruz (1899 -1987)
1930s: Federico Heinlein (1902)
Pedro Núñez (1906-1989)
Alfonso Letelier (1912-1994)
1940s: Juan Orrego-Salas (1919) U.S.A
Late 1940s: Alfonso Montecino (1924) U.S.A.
Carlos Riesco (1925)
1950s: Ida Vivado (1913-1989)
Eduardo Maturana (1920) PANAMA
Carlos Botto (1923)
Leni Alexander (1924) GERMANY/CHILE
Gustavo Becerra (1925) GERMANY
Juan Allende-Blin (1928) GERMANY
Darwin Vargas (1925-1988)
Roberto Escobar (1926)
Tomás Lefever (1926) ECUADOR/CHILE
Juan Lèmann (1928)
Wilfried Junge (1928)
Miguel Aguilar (1931)
León Schidlowsky (1931) ISRAEL
José V. Asuar (1933)
Late 1950s: Juan Amenábar (1922)
Fernando García (1930) PERU/CUBA
1960s: Luis Advis (1935)
Cirilo Vila (1937)
Sergio Ortega (1938) FRANCE
Edmundo Vásquez (1938) FRANCE
Miguel Letelier (1939)
Gabriel Brncic (1942) SPAIN
Late 1960s: Hernán Ramírez (1941)
Jorge Arriagada (1943) FRANCE
1970s: Guillermo Rifo (1945)
Pablo Délano (1950)
Andrés Alcalde (1952) ITALY/CHILE
Late 1970s: Santiago Vera (1950)
Alejandro Guarello (1951) ITALY/CHILE
Jaime González (1956)
1980s: Patricio Wang (1952) HOLLAND
Jorge Springensfeld (1953) FRANCE
Fernando Carrasco (1953)
Rolando Cori (1954) CHILE/ GERMANY
Gabriel Mathey (1955)
Eduardo Cáceres (1955) GERMANY/CHILE
Late 1980s Vladimir Wistuba (1956) FINLAND
Renán Cortés (1958)
Ramón Gorigoitia (1958) GERMANY
Pablo Aranda (1960)
Boris Alvarado (1962)
Aliocha Solovera (1963) SLOVENIA

Composers selected in this paper, have musical, generational, and ideological similarities and differences. This collective poetics has been put together on the basis of common threads and has been comparatively discussed and thereby enriched by considering the different individual views of these musicians. The main issues addressed by these composers during the 1980s are presented, contrasted, and discussed under the headings of "Universalism", "Identity", and "Composing".


The assimilation and renewal of Western European traditions in the practice of Latin American composers are recognized by Orrego-Salas, Vila, and Ortega. They have great respect for tradition as a force which sustains composition and is renewed in it.

Juan Orrego-Salas: Tradition is somehow continuity and change, it involves both the act of adhesion to the past and a simultaneous act of reinterpretation and adaptation to the changes of life (Torres 1988: 60).

Cirilo Vila: Now we can understand that Schoenberg assimilated the 200 year glorious tradition started with Bach. What is important to understand in Schoenberg's work is the spirit of renewal as a heritage (Cruz 1985: 31).

After the apparent departure from the Western European influence through the national movements of the first decades of the century, Latin American composers embraced an universalism which also had Western European influence. They participated in the international movement of contemporary music created in the Western world after World War II. According to Orrego-Salas, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile were the most open countries to the cosmopolitanism that flourished in America at the beginning of the 1950s. This openness may have been favored, Orrego-Salas states, by the weak nationalism of the composers of these countries in the previous decades (1977: 188).

The universalism practiced in Chile during the 1950s, as in most Latin American countries, was more an imitation of the last compositional trends developed in Europe than their assimilation and renewal. [4] The so called universalism, Orrego-Salas says, stocked many Latin American composers in technical matters, producing the interruption of the expression and flow of music until today (1984: 73).

During the last quarter of the 20th century, a new sense of universalism seems to have grown among Chilean composers. They feel themselves part of a whole formed by an art music created all over the world in which the Western musical tradition is now developed and renewed both inside and outside Central Europe. According to Gustavo Becerra, who lives in Germany since 1971, art music development occurs now in the so called fringe areas of the world (González 1985: 8). At the same time, Eduardo Cáceres, a composer from the 1980´s who lives in Chile, gives an equal status to art music created in Europe and in America during the late 20th century (Muñoz, 1987).

The position of Chilean composers from the 1970s and 1980s illustrates this renewal of universalism. Western European music is not imitated but it has been integrated as part of a common heritage. Alejandro Guarello, for instance, a composer from the late 1970´s, expresses his openness to any useful influence on his thinking:

I am always open to all of that which enriches myself, that gets integrated, not identified, that has something to do, either positively or negatively, with my way of thinking (Torres, 1988: 83).

Riesco, Vila, and Orrego-Salas recognize the independent universalism of recent generations of Chilean composers. This universalism is non imitative, free of prejudices, informed, and eclectic.

Carlos Riesco: Chilean composers nowadays tend to create their own music in order to achieve a universal expression in this field, as it has been already achieved in Chile in poetry and in painting (1989).

Cirilo Vila: The generation of the 1980s has less preconceptions than the ones before. This generation has an attitude that goes beyond the limits imposed in music and moves towards an integration of musical forms (Cruz 1985: 30).

Juan Orrego-Salas: I like the openness of Chilean composers from the 1970s and 1980s, who have not considered any of the musical trends more important than the other ones (Foxley 1987: 38).

The new generation of Chilean composers are clearly distinctive from the former generations. They criticize the thematic, discursive, and lineal conception of music held by their predecessors, and also condemn composers of their own age who continue making music in canonized styles, a kind of academic stagnation, as Cáceres states. To Alcalde, there is little adventure and experimentation in Chilean composition. Composers still write their music based on a theme and talk about counterpoint, he says.

Andrés Alcalde: Today the whole system of Aristotelian logical thought has reached a point of crisis. The same thing has happened in music which I no longer understand as a discursive and linear rhetorics (Naranjo 1987: 56).

After the unconditional following of and opposition to specific trends of composition, an open position is found among Chilean composers. Freedom of choice is recognized by Becerra and Vila. To them, all procedures and trends can coexist and be merged in contemporary creation. None is better or worse in itself, each one is just a possible syntax for the composition of music. To Becerra, any of the music styles in history has the same value. (González 1985: 4). Vila advocates the end of the prejudice that dodecafonism is good or bad in itself. The quality of a work, Vila states, depends on the quality of the composer, who may create great works either in D major or with any series (Cruz 1985: 31). Orrego-Salas himself shares Vila's late 20th century aesthetic validation of tonality:

I still believe that with Mozart's and Bach's C major one can express something completely new (Lipthay, 1980: 41-42).


The several and coexisting influences that build up culture in Latin America offer different and opposed sources of identity. Indigenous, African, European, and North American influences form parallel realities within Latin American society. This spectrum of cultural influences, and the variety of opinions about the problem of identity in our region are well illustrated by the Chilean musicians' discourse of the 1980s.

Being initiated in the European art music tradition by a detailed study and practice of 14th to 20th century European music, Chilean musicians have been exposed to a heritage of five centuries of artistic and social prestige. They recognize the strong influence that European art tradition exerts among them.

Living in a society which is not the one that produced the cultural heritage which feeds their artistic creation, many Chilean and Latin American composers have lived isolated from their social and cultural reality. The romantic idea of the artist alienated from society is still alive in the 20th century, both from conservative as well as progressive aesthetic perspectives.

Latin American composers who have isolated themselves from society, defending their independence as artists, have contributed to create an elitist music, Orrego-Salas states (1984: 73). This is a music without social identity, because it is not shared by a community beyond the interested professional musician and the committed audience with whom each composer surrounds himself.

To Becerra, it is fundamental for a composer to know where he or she is living, which means to be aware of the social and cultural reality of his or her region.

Gustavo Becerra: The composer has to live where he truly is. The only way to live is in concrete reality. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do not feel like they are truly living in the country in which they reside (González 1985: 9).

The fascination that European art music produces among Chilean composers is regarded by Cáceres as a prolongation of a colonial cultural relation.

Eduardo Cáceres: I do not think we should reject what comes from Europe, but we should not forget that we do not live in Europe (Muñoz: 1987).

To be a Chilean musician within a Latin American and Western frame is a question that composers often ask themselves. Living in Germany since 1971 has not been an impediment to Becerra to consider himself a Chilean composer. He recognizes his bilingual musical tradition; art music is easily polyglot, Becerra says (Foxley, 1988: 38).

Identity is one of the principal topics in Becerra's discourse. His social vision of art, and his detachment from the immediate reality of Latin America, have made of Becerra an authorized voice in the development of a socio-musical thinking on Latin America. To him, the presence of exclusive cultural elements in a country and region does not constitute the main source of cultural identity. National and regional identity are rather given by the social use of elements of any cultural origin by the members of a community (González, 1985: 10). This use also means taking possession of external elements, including the Western-universal ones.

José Seves, a member of the New Song group Inti-illimani, stresses that Pablo Neruda did not use, with regard to form, Chilean popular poetry. He rather took possession of the forms of the "universal" culture (Rivera, 1980: 31-34). This taking up a position seems fundamental to the development of a national culture in the "fringe" areas of Western society.

On the other hand, stressing the relation between the community and the self, Vila regards identity as the imprint that a particular social and cultural environment leaves on the self during childhood. "One is from the country where he or she has grown up" Rainer-Maria Rilke says (Torres, 1988: 73).

Vila attributes the permanent concern for identity of Chilean composers to their isolation from their indigenous traditions. As a matter of fact, indigenous culture is scarcely considered as a factor of identity by Chilean contemporary musicians. The existence of a Chilean indigenous tradition has been even negated by the more Western oriented sectors of Chilean society.

Alejandro Guarello: Chile is a particularly cosmopolitan country in which there are not indigenous traditions: the Spaniards destroyed everything. What we have today is a blend of influences, that is why roots and folklore have became a myth ("Alejandro Guarello ...", 1989: 5).

Chilean musical identity has been circumscribed not only to the presence of folk music materials, but to the use of melodic features derived from the Chilean way of speaking, the use of literary elements, the presence of a sad and melancholy mood, and the description of landscape. [5] Orrego-Salas, for instance, sees the image of the Andean mountain range reflected in the contrasting volumes and different densities and textures of the contemporary music of Andean countries (1987: 191).

A particular compositional approach, or personal attitude in musical practice, and the presence of formal principles and performing practices of folk music also make music to be "Latin American". To Becerra, the factors for cultural identity in music are the social use and function of music, not the presence of folklore or the reference to landscape. He regards Latin American music from a socio-realistic perspective, as the music that expresses, reflects, influences, and has a function and purpose in Latin American society (Bocaz, 1978: 97). We may guess how many Chilean works would remain as "Chilean" as before if we used this criteria to define their national identity!


Explaining their compositional practices, Chilean composers have developed a musical discourse focused on formal rather than expressive matters, and on the relation between composing and performing. [6]

Structure has again reached an artistic status, and has been in the center of the discourse of many contemporary composers since the starting of dodecafonism. Structure seems to acquire a composing role, creating its own conditions of existence and dictating them to the work. Guarello recognizes that his music makes itself and he is only a controller of this process of self-making ("Alejandro Guarello ..." 1989: 4). For Orrego-Salas, selected musical elements will guide the composer in the elaboration of the entire work (1988: 19). Even composers more devoted to song, as Luis Advis, manifest their concern for structure.

Sometimes a melody comes up but it has to be immediately integrated into a structure ("Luis Advis ...", 1989: 5).

Structure manifests its influence inside and outside single works, specially in Alcalde's music, who practices a complex and obscure process of derivative materials, procedures and titles among his works. For instance, three structural intervals of his work Monthe are used in Der Mondbach II for violoncello and double string quartet, which is also based on structural relations from Der Mondbach I for solo violoncello (Jéldrez 1987: 16). Furthermore, notes not used at the end of Der Mondbach II provide the basic material for his next work, Fugi I, a work with a title formed with the missing vowels of Der Mondbach. Doing this, Alcalde re-invents an European idiom, both in language and in music.

In Vila's music, the idea of derivation is reversed in the idea of generation. The link is with the future instead of being with the past. This idea comes from James Joyce's concept of "work in progress", applied by Vila to music composition. With this idea, Vila links his future works to his current composition practice. The material employed in his work Germinal, which includes three dodecaphonic series together with the color of the venerable major triad -Vila states-, permits the growth or future germination of a major work. The present work is a seed, or just a hypothesis ("Creación musical ...", 1989: 116).

Performance of new music in Chile is an issue often discussed by Chilean composers. Composition is affected by performance at least in two ways: by setting technical and expressive limits to the musical work, and by controllling musical gesture.

Technical and artistic limitations of performers restrict the performance of contemporary music. Many times, performers do not know how to play new music because of the non existence of a method to learn how to do it, as Vila states (Petrovic, 1990: 44). When the performer is not able to play modern music, Guarello says, musical creation remains limited and music becomes dull.

Alejandro Guarello: Only the music of the past centuries is studied, despite that instrumental technique has changed as much as science (Díaz 1987: 55).

Sometimes, performers do not want to play modern works because they find it too un-idiomatic for their instruments. After being aware of this, Alcalde is worried about the plastic relation between the instrument and the composition (Naranjo 1987: 55). Nowadays, despite the rhythmic complexities of Alcalde's music, performers like to play his works.

By stimulating or not the performance of new music, and by providing or not the material conditions for musical practice, society determines the composer's creation. There is not scoring paper with more than 24 staves available in Chile, Vila states. If there is not a request, to compose for orchestra is simply filed away, he says (Saavedra, 1989).

Chilean orchestras are not always willing to include the works of Chilean composers. In fact, younger composers, not like it was before, compose more chamber music than symphonic music (Riesco 1989). According to García, 60 Chilean symphonic works were performed in Chile from 1961 to 1973, whereas from 1979 to 1994 only 25 Chilean symphonic works have been played in the country (1996: 45).

Sergio Ortega: The sonorous imagination keeps tied to reality. How much you imagine depends on how much you conquer, if you do not have it, you do not have it, because you cannot train a musician to imagine that he is going to count on a sonorous medium which he really cannot count on (1980: 48).

Assembling a collective music discourse, and making explicit an implicit thinking on music, we have wanted to contribute building up a critical tradition and a poetical network among Chilean composers. The views of the composers selected in this paper, roughly related to the formalism of the 1940s, the modernism of the 1950s, the vanguardism of the 1960s, the rupturism of the 1970s, and the postmodernism of the 1980s, have much to do with their artistic production. These "isms" are useful to give stylistic labels to contemporary Chilean music.

This music may also be characterized by its reference to an identity pattern. One of the stronger patterns of identity in Western music has been "the national", specially since the mid 19th century. The immediate source of "the national" has been folklore; the music of the original inhabitants of the new nation states of the last century. This relation has been maintained by many Latin American composers during the first half of the 20th century. Chilean composers have replaced national identity by local and social identity, or by not identity at all, pleading for the universal status of art and the freedom of the individual. This freedom of choice is recognized by Olivier Messiaen, professor of Riesco and Vila, as the artstic path of someone who does not bear a tradition.

Answering Riesco's question of what it means to be a Chilean composer, Messiaen said:

Maybe it means to act with freedom. We carry a tradition of centuries which forces us in multiple ways. You are in the enviable position of acting with freedom, without having to be original above all or having to fight against everything and everybody, like Debussy's phantom (Riesco, 1988: 275).

Freedom of choice has been one of the main characteristics of composition in Chile since the beginning of the 20th century. However, in many cases this freedom has not contributed to free Chilean society from its strong Western European influence.

© 2004, Juan Pablo González
In: World New Music Magazine nr 7, Köln 1997